It was supposed to be an intervention, but they were getting piss drunk. Freddy Malins had been drinking all week. His mother died the morning after New Year’s at her home in Portobello. She was taking out the trash and fell down the steps in the hall that led to the street. There was another tenant, but they were stuck in Kildare due to the snow storm that covered the country, and, after Freddy came around to ring for her and she wouldn’t answer, he went back home, cursing at his mother for being a right bloody pain in the ass, and got his copy of the key to her house. When he opened the door he found her there, eyes closed, neck craned at a sharp angle, head pressed forward against her chest.
“She was dead,” Freddy told everybody at the funeral. He said he stood there and looked at her and felt relief. He said he felt fucking relief and shook his head. Taking care of her had become a chore. He stepped over the body and the limp bag of trash, went up the stairs to her flat, where the door was left open. A cat looked at him from under the table. In a couple of days, if no one had come around, it would have probably started to eat her, he mused. Bless her soul, when he went to the kitchen to call for the police, he saw that she had already placed a new liner in the bin.
The coroner said the fall knocked her out and she suffocated under her own weight. “For fuck’s sake,” he said, recounting the story at the pub. “She didn’t even know it.” He slammed down his pint of Guinness – a trait of his drunkenness that didn’t indicate hostility, but more so a lack of control over his limbs. The more he drank, the heavier his arm became. He stumbled away to the bathroom.
They had all gathered at the local, early in the evening to meet Freddy head on, but he was already a few drinks in when he arrived. The sight of his friends made him cordial and warm. He bought the first round before any protest was made.
“The poor bastard,” Lily said from behind the bar. “Been in here every night this week.”
“What can we do,” said D’Arcy with a slow lilt. His voice was controlled and even and was given to song after a half-dozen pints or so. The evening waned, and Lily pulled the grates over the windows. Freddy came back to the bar and stood with his small group of friends. There were a few other drinkers scattered about the place in wood-paneled nooks or curved over a low table. He surveyed the room and turned to Lily. His cheeks were red, and his nose a shade brighter than those.
“How’s the job, Lil’?” he said.
“Quite a bit better than the last,” she said.
“You were good to them,” he said.
“Dreadful the way things went down,” Browne said.
“What can we do?” D’Arcy said to his pint.
“That nephew of theirs,” Freddy said, “he had no business. None at all.”
“Aye,” Lily said. “A simple mistake.”
“Still, it was dreadful,” Browne said.
“He could have set it straight,” Freddy said. “That was the simple mistake.”
D’Arcy shook his head and raised his pint. “What can we do?”
“I don’t know what I’d have done if you didn’t put in the good word here, Mr. Malins,” said Lily.
“Don’t think on it,” he said. “Not a bit.” His pint slammed down. “One for the road?”
He dug into his pocket and produced a handful of notes that he dropped on the bar. He glanced around and moved his finger in the air.
“All of it?” Lily asked.
“That’s right grand of you, Freddy,” Browne said.
“She was frugal, lads.”
“Thank you, sir,” D’Arcy said with a small bow.
“Ring yourself one too, Lil’,” Freddy said.
Lily poured herself a half pint and a small glass of whiskey.
“That’s a girl,” Freddy said. Lily took a few bills and came back with change. Freddy pushed a bill forward.
“What’s this for?” Lily said.
Freddy nodded at her.
“A tip?” she said.
“If you have to call it something.”
“A fiver is too much.”
“Take the money, girl,” Browne said. “Always accept money and advice with grace, though you’ll find you’ll get much farther with one, and always pass on the other.”
Mr. Browne was pleased with himself, and put his arm around D’Arcy and repeated the phrase.
Lily slipped the note into her pocket.
The bar had cleared out and they were finishing their pints. The small group helped Lily put up the stools while she turned off the lights. Browne took the trash out. “It’s begun to snow again,” he said when he came back in. His shoulders and hair were dusted and the flakes melted in the warmth of the bar. Lily poured them each one more and pulled a chair around.
“Let us know,” Freddy said. “Don’t let us keep you.”
“I will,” she said. “I like an evening pint when all the work is done.”
“A pint is a grand thing when all the work is done,” D’Arcy said. “Cheers.”
They drank, and in the quiet moments they could hear the wind and snow land against the shutters.
“It’s good to be somewhere warm on a night like this,” Freddy said.
“It gets cold out there,” Browne said.
“Much warmer in here,” D’Arcy said.
“Thanks for the hospitality,” Freddy said to Lily.
“It’s the least I could do,” Lily said, “and after your mother and all.”
“She was a good woman,” Browne said.
“Aye,” Freddy said. “She was a pain the arse.”
“She was your mother,” Lily said.
“He don’t mean nothing by it,” Browne said.
“I’m taking the piss,” Freddy said.
“Let’s talk of better things,” D’Arcy said.
“Why don’t you sing for us?” Lily asked.
“It’s getting time, isn’t it?” D’Arcy said.
“Almost,” she said.
He raised his pint in the air and sang.
Of all the money that e'er I had
I spent it in good company
Freddy joined, and Browne sang bass. Low. The barrel of his chest resonated. Lily took up a light soprano to complement D’Arcy’s even and pure tenor.
And all the harm I've ever done
Alas it was to none but me
And all I've done for want of wit
To mem'ry now I can't recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be to you all
They sang the verses and refrained.
Good night and joy be to you all
“Well, lads. I’m off,” Freddy said. “Tomorrow, Lil’.”
“We’ll be right behind you,” said D’Arcy.
“Get home all right?” Browne asked.
“Always,” Freddy said.
He opened the door. The roads were covered and there wasn’t a cab in sight. He walked. The snow was over his shoes. He pulled his collar up and stuck his hands deep in his jacket pockets. He hummed the song and by the third verse he found himself singing out loud.
He walked in the street. It was easier than the sidewalk. The grooves left by traffic earlier on made shallow work of the snow, and he could walk straighter following the line as he sang. He turned the corner and saw two policemen. They waved him to come over.
“What’s the matter?” Freddy said.
“You’re singing loud in the street in the middle of the night,” the first officer said.
“You’re drunk,” said the second.
“Only a little,” Freddy said.
“Where are you going?”
“Just up the road.”
“Keep quiet. We’ll be listening.”
Freddy bowed to the officers and continued. He hummed to himself. He turned around and could see the officers in the street. The gas lamps were yellow through the snow and made the men seem small and foreign. He waved at them. They didn’t see him.
He turned down the next street and fumbled in his pocket for a key. He opened the door to his flat and stood inside. He shook off the snow and stomped his feet. He went to the kitchen and put on water for some tea. When the kettle whistled, a cat trotted into the room.
Freddy picked up the cat and held it with one arm while he poured the hot water. He sat in a chair and pet the cat and drank the tea. The cat was warm and purred.
“I was singing and these policemen told me to stop,” he said to the cat.
Freddy sipped his tea. He looked out the window and the snow was coming down harder. He thought of the pub. His friends were on their way home by now. He wanted to be back in the warmth of the bar. He wanted to sing again. He stood up and went to the window and looked out into the street.
“I guess they were right,” he said. “Out there is no place for songs of the dead.”